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How to Overcome Uncertainty, Doubt and Fear, The Psychic Banes of Creativity

by David K. William | The Web Writer Spotlight: Nov 9, 2015



“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.” — Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit.


Never be under any illusions about how challenging and frightful pursuing a creative profession is. Whether you are a writer, a painter, a musician or anyone in between, you’ll suffer creative uncertainty, fear and doubt many times, especially when releasing something new you’ve created to the world. But, as English poet Christina Rossetti once questioned, and then answered herself, “Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes; work never begun.”

When working on your creative projects, much like climbing or cycling up a mountain, you’ll encounter what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” with a capital R. Resistance encompasses three “psychic banes” of the creative life: Uncertainty of what the future holds, risk of loss or humiliation resulting from your creative efforts, and doubt if the effort is even worth it at all.  

You never feel 100% qualified to start creating for public consumption. But, just because you don't feel 100% qualified to create doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. The risk of your work being judged; of making a fool of yourself pales in comparison to the terror of indecision and quiet regret you’ll feel when you look back and realize you lost an opportunity to do something meaningful with your life. Your heart will moan, alone. I’m sure that is not a path you’d want to travel.

Besides, judgment of our work is a useful feedback metric! Creators need it because without it there is no verification of the work completed, and no opportunity to make it better. So, don’t let fear of judgment stop you in your tracks. Here’s what you can do to overcome fear, uncertainty, and doubt when these rear their heads and threaten to derail you from your creative pursuits.


1. Face your fears head-on instead of running away from them.


Don’t run away from your problems. It’s not advisable to do that. Instead, face your fears straight. Only when you face your fears can you address them conclusively and not have to revisit them again with the same terror. Besides, fear is a very basic and beneficial survival instinct that we developed to keep ourselves alive. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, explains:

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.... The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.


Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

If fear, uncertainty and/or doubt don’t exist, maybe then you should be worried. It could mean you are creating something that doesn’t mean much to you, or that has become cliché. Something that’s bland.


2. Revisit how you’re doing, and why you’re doing it in the first place.


Step back and analyze what you are doing. How’s what you are doing working for you? Why are you still pushing forward? Remind yourself of your main motivations. See the big picture. That is important because it will bring clarity and dissolve many uncertainties and fears you may have.

If everything goes wrong and you hit rock bottom, how bad will it really be? Will you survive? Think about that and recognize that failures and setbacks are opportunities to learn and do better. Critics and naysayers, on the other side, are unwitting resources who keep us on our toes. They help us do better. They help us develop a thick skin.

When you review and challenge your doubts, you'll discover worse-case scenarios aren’t that bad really, and they rarely happen anyway. William Shakespeare said, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” In other words, we create mental monsters in our heads all the time that are, well, imaginary. They’re not real. 


3. Create routines and rituals, and stick with them.


Routines and rituals are solid psychological “certainty anchors.” Create them and sick with them. They add something known and reliable to your life, thereby helping you to overcome some uncertainties.

Sheer willpower is a limited resource. It can get depleted when you rely on it too much, causing you to doubt your place or worth as a creative. However, by turning creative activities into ritualized habits, you use less willpower, leaving more available to deal with fear and doubt. 

General life routines and rituals include things like when and how you prepare your food, when you do your laundry and when you retire to bed each night. Creative life routines and rituals include things like where you work, when you work, what you do before and after work, and when you brainstorm.

When you incorporate rituals and routines into your life, you create a psychological “bedrock” that can keep you grounded and prevent you from spinning off in many directions.


4. Surround yourself with supportive friends and mentors.


The right friends and mentors can provide vital feedback and support, as well as inspiration to overcome any potentially crippling doubts and uncertainties you may have. Sometimes all you need is a helpful friend or supportive mentor to point out the obvious and get you out of a fix.

Mentors are accomplished individuals who can inspire you both by example and with individual feedback. Your collage Arts professor can be a mentor, so also can a particularly friendly and resourceful editor you’re working with.

Friends are those people whose feedback and judgment you value and trust. They are individuals who are invested in your work and equally devoted to seeing its successful completion. Lo and behold, your significant other can also be a friend.

These people come together to create a “creative hive” where you can shelter and find constructive, level-headed judgment and feedback. Constructive feedback is vital to your success as a creative person.


5. Involve the people you are creating for in the creation process.


That’ll help you learn what works and provide other useful insights rapidly from the beginning, thus taking down a lot of doubt and fear, and putting power back in your hands.

Think about it, if you are fairly certain of what people want or expect of you, then it means you are in a position to decide whether to meet their expectations or go the opposite way and create something else to elicit a different response. In this case, the power is in your hands.

A way to involve people in the creation process is to create a “minimum viable product,” a bare-bones basic version, and get some feedback on it. Use the feedback you get to create another prototype, release it to people and get more feedback. Repeat as needed.

Doing this will not only help you improve your product, but also reduce uncertainty and buildup your tolerance to risk through repeated exposure to criticism. That's a win-win situation for everyone involved.


6. Relax your standards just a little, and have some fun.


Let your hair down and just have some fun. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time creating. And be tolerant with yourself and with others. The creative process is not meant to be stressful. It’s meant to be fun. Holding yourself to insanely high standards only causes stress and can even lead to clinical anxiety and depression.

Brené Brown, PhD, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and author of The Gifts Of Imperfection, agrees that perfectionism is destructive. She writes: “I've interviewed CEOs and award-winning athletes, and not once in twelve years did I ever hear someone say, 'I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.' Never!

What she hears instead is high achievers crediting their success to a willingness to mess up, learn from their experiences and keep moving forward. You are only human. If you accept that you will mess up sometimes; if you give yourself the same empathy you’d show a friend; if you have fun and keep showing up to work, nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams in life. Not even fear.


David K. William is a writer, publisher and entrepreneur. Everything he writes is inspired by life experiences and study. David is also founding editor of Follow him on Twitter @DavidKWilliam.

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